By Ralph Novak
April 15, 1991 12:00 PM

Michael Wright, Leon

Like all those ’40s drama-musicals about great pop composers—Night and Day, Rhapsody in Blue, Words and Music—this film about an all-black R&B singing group trying to make it in the 1960s is not heavily into plausibility.

At one point aspiring songwriter Robert Townsend is stumped for a lyric when his little sister comes into his room to sweep up. She finds just the right line on a crumpled piece of paper on the floor; soon the two of them are scurrying around the room rounding up discarded scraps, writing and singing the song as they go.

If its sense of reality is distorted, though, the film’s metronome is in the right place. The original music, written under the guidance of supervising producers George Duke and Steve Tyrell, effectively recalls the landmark sound of such groups as the Temptations and the Four Tops—and it’s a sound that has held up remarkably well.

Townsend (Hollywood Shuffle), who directed, also splashes in background samples from the Four Tops and the Dells, and one woman character, Baby Doll, played by Troy Beyer, is a singer who sounds like Diana Ross.

While most of the serious Heartbeats singing is dubbed by studio singer Billy Valentine, the group’s members are appealing in their own right. Townsend plays the intellectual one, Wright the scoundrel. Leon, whose main deficiency would seem to be in the surname department, is the womanizer; elementary schoolteacher-film newcomer Harry J. Lennix the stable one; and Tico Wells the clergyman’s son. Lennix and Leon may stay in your mind a bit longer, but this is an ensemble performance that plays the way it’s supposed to—as the acting equivalent of five-part harmony.

Townsend also benefits from a strong supporting cast that includes Beyer, Harold Nicholas (of the great MGM musical tapdancing team the Nicholas Brothers), Roy Fegan as a rival singer, and Hawthorne James as a ruthless record-company owner whose idea of negotiating royalties is to dangle an artist off a hotel-room balcony until he agrees to terms.

The script, written by Townsend with Keenen Ivory Wayans, doesn’t measure up to the acting. As the group fights to succeed, then falls apart, the writing doesn’t send up or exploit clichés. It trots them out. The group’s manager, for instance, solemnly tells them, “I think you guys have what it takes to go all the way to the top.” Leon says, “I’m tired of being with a different woman every night,” and Townsend replies, “When the right woman comes along, it’ll be right. You can’t force it.”

Townsend and Wayans could have used more of the bite that comes out when Leon, exasperated because a commercial-minded record company has put a scene of a white family on the cover of the group’s first album, snorts, “I never seen five niggers on Elvis Presley’s album cover.” (The Five Horsemen, an all-white group that covers and homogenizes blacks’ songs, is broadly sketched—full of plump guys in bleached wigs—and has little satirical punch.)

The ending is so full of huggy reconciliations that it looks as if the group is going to change its name to the Five Buscaglias. Townsend and his cast have, however, earned a certain amount of sentimental license. And we should be grateful these days for a movie in which the characters really seem worth rooting for. (R)